House of Commons
Tuesday 2 September 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Transport for London Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Buckinghamshire County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Readings opposed and deferred until Tuesday 9 September at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Long-term Economic Plan
The Government’s long-term economic plan is working, and the International Monetary Fund expects the United Kingdom to grow faster than any other G7 country this year. But the job is not yet done; there are growing risks abroad from a disappointingly weak eurozone and persistent risks at home from Opposition Members who would abandon the long-term plan and return Britain to the economic mess they left it in.
I welcome the statistics out today on the Government’s flagship Help to Buy scheme. It is helping those families it was designed for: those buying a house worth less than the national average—overwhelmingly, these are people outside London and the south-east. The policy is boosting aspiration and helping hard-working families on to the housing ladder. So will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will not listen to the Labour party, which has opposed the policy, and will instead continue with Help to Buy as part of our long-term economic plan to deliver greater economic security and a brighter future for our country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. We heard lots of scare stories from the Opposition about how this scheme would be used only in central London and the like. The fact is that today’s figures show that almost 50,000 people have been helped by Help to Buy, and that 80% of those have been helped outside London and the south-east of England. In her own council area, more than 300 families have been helped. Members of Parliament from west Yorkshire would like to note that Leeds is the No.1 location for people using Help to Buy. The scheme is working, it is about backing aspiration and it is about helping people get on in life.
Businesses and families across my constituency will all benefit from recent investments in the Halton curve railway, the Mersey gateway bridge and the Hartree centre for supercomputing in Daresbury. I urge my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to continue the important work he is doing as part of the long-term economic plan to build the northern powerhouse, which will continue to create jobs and economic security in Weaver Vale and across the north of England.
Of course, I want Weaver Vale and Cheshire to be part of that northern powerhouse, and may I commend my hon. Friend for the campaigns he has fought to get the second Mersey crossing, the Halton curve and the investment in Daresbury? Those are things that Labour MPs, including the one who used to represent his seat, campaigned for for years and got nothing from a Labour Government. We now have a Conservative MP delivering for his constituents under a Conservative Chancellor.
For the reasons that I have set out before—with the slower growth in Europe. This is extraordinary: all we get at Treasury questions and generally from the Labour party are requests for more spending and more borrowing, but now Labour Members seem to be complaining that we have not cut enough. Over the summer, we did our sums, we added up their summer spending spree and we found there had been £21 billion of Labour spending commitments in the past five or six weeks alone. That is another reminder of why it cannot be trusted with the British economy again.
New research by the Inequality Briefing highlights the fact that nine of the 10 poorest regions in northern Europe are in the UK—these include the ones I represent in west Wales. The UK is also home to the richest region in northern Europe: inner London. What has happened to the long-term plan to geographically rebalance the UK economy?
The first thing I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that of course we need to tackle long-standing regional disparities in our country, and we are putting investment into Wales, including transport and infrastructure investment, to try to lift the economic performance of Wales. The broader point I make is that we need to bring the economic geography of our country closer together. That is an argument I have made about the north of England. The gap between the regions grew under the last Labour Government. By making the long-term investment under our long-term plan we hope to reduce the disparities under this Government.
The crucial task now is to develop a long-term supply side reform agenda. Does the Chancellor agree that at the heart of that must be policies to release the energies of millions of small businesses and sole traders up and down the country? With that in mind, will he examine the policies of both the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Mirrlees review, which in different ways have proposed to reduce the burden of national insurance contributions when that is affordable? Is that not an essential part of Britain’s long-term recovery?
I agree with the sentiment that my hon. Friend expresses that we want to make it easier to employ people. I would argue that the reductions that we have already made in national insurance on coming into office and the provision of an employment allowance, which has been enormously popular among smaller businesses, and next year’s move to remove under 21-year-olds from the jobs tax are all steps we are taking to support the creation of jobs in the economy. Of course, the Labour party would like to put up the jobs tax, but that would be deeply counter-productive and put people out of work.
Of course one of the challenges across the western world has been wage growth. The shadow Chancellor put it very well in an interview he gave last week. He said:
“I think that the fact that you had the massive…financial crisis which happened on our watch meant people saw their living standards hit.”
There is an admission of where the source of the problem is, and the solution is to grow our economy, create jobs and help people get on in life, and that is what we are doing.
I am not sure whether I detected any concern from the Chancellor. But if he is concerned about this issue, why is it that under his plans it is always those with the lowest incomes, those in the poorest areas and those who are most vulnerable in society who end up being hit hardest by these measures? Will he now prioritise action to ensure that we have proper enforcement of a decent minimum wage, end those exploitative zero-hours contracts and promote some incentives to have a living wage?
We are introducing new measures to strengthen enforcement of the minimum wage and to ensure that there is not an abuse of zero-hours contracts. Might I add that for 13 years the Labour party had the opportunity to introduce those measures and it did not? The record under this Government, despite the incredibly difficult economic inheritance, is that child poverty is down by 300,000 and inequality is lower than it was on average under the previous Labour Government, so we are proceeding to deal with the enormous problems that we inherited in a way that is consistent and fair.
Party Spending (OBR Audit)
Autumn statement 2013 announced that, as required by legislation, the OBR is launching an external review of its publications over the course of 2014. The external review team will publish its independent report tomorrow. Following the outcome of that review, the Government will hold their own review of the OBR at the start of the next Parliament.
That was very interesting but it had nothing to do with the question. The figure of £21 billion that the Chancellor mentioned in his answer to question 1 will presumably be sent now by the Minister to the OBR to be checked as to whether it is factually correct, or is the figure a political smear, as usual from the Chancellor, that he is not prepared to stand up by sending it for scrutiny to the OBR—yes or no?
Much of that £21 billion figure is based on the Labour party’s own announcements. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman is complaining about that. If the Labour party wants to have credibility on fiscal policy, perhaps it should stop making so many announcements of spending splurges. Our view is that the OBR is in its infancy. We want the organisation to succeed and therefore do not want to draw it into party political matters.
If the OBR ever does decide to look at the Labour party’s figures, perhaps it will be able to explain how it is possible for the Labour party to be able to call for reductions in borrowing and in the deficit while making all sorts of promises to spend billions of pounds that it simply does not have. Does it not show that the Labour Members are as incoherent on economics as they were when they lost the last general election?
Why are the Financial Secretary, the Chancellor and the whole Treasury scared of having such an audit? It is the most appropriate thing for the OBR to do. The OBR is one of their better creations; we have complimented them on it and supported it all the way. Perhaps we should have set it up ourselves but we have got it now. I will tell the Minister why they will not arrange for such an audit. It is because they are frit. The whole Government know that the OBR would endorse and give a clear bill of health to our plans.
My memory is that the Labour party did not support the OBR all the way. There is a debate to be had about the future of the organisation, but we do believe that, in its infancy, an organisation of this sort needs to be secure. That argument was used by the Labour party when the relevant Bill was passed in the House of Lords.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, rather than trying to untangle the mess of the current spending plans, the OBR’s time might be better used looking at the spending plans of the Labour party when it was in government so that the public have a verified and independent record of the mess it left before the next general election?
As well as auditing manifestos, we propose that the OBR should be tasked with monitoring and reporting on the Government’s progress on child poverty, including the impact of Budget decisions. Why will not the Government task the OBR with taking on this role? Is it because the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that by 2020 almost 1 million more children will be living in relative poverty and almost 1.4 million in absolute poverty?
Every week, another new task comes from the Labour party for the OBR. Child poverty is down by 300,000. That is the record and those are the numbers that have been produced. We believe that the OBR has had a very good start as an organisation. We value it and believe that it has an important future, and we will not jeopardise it by letting Labour use it for party political games.
The Government are protecting vulnerable groups while taking action to tackle the record deficit we inherited. Work remains the best route out of poverty and the Budget took action to support families and to make the tax and welfare system fairer, further increasing the income tax personal allowance to £10,500 in 2015-16, which will take 3.2 million people on low incomes out of tax altogether.
I was amazed by the answer given by the Minister’s colleague to the previous question, so perhaps I will try her on the same point. Are she and her colleague in the least bit troubled by the fact that the IFS forecasts that child poverty will rise by 400,000 during this Parliament?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are committed to ending child poverty by 2020. Under this Government, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already said, child poverty has fallen by more than 300,000 since 2010. The best route out of poverty is work and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will support that route.
16. The Government’s own figures show that the number of children in poverty in absolute terms after housing costs increased by half a million between 2010 and 2013. Why does the burden of fiscal adjustment fall on the most vulnerable? (905060)
I think it is worth my reiterating that relative child poverty has fallen under this Government by 300,000 since 2010. It is quite clear what the IFS has said about the greatest and deepest recession we have had thus far and that work is the best route out of poverty. I have said it already and I will repeat it: work is the best route out of poverty. This Government are supporting hard-working families across the country and getting them out of poverty.
18. Unfortunately, the Minister’s comments bear no relationship to Rotherham, where almost a third of children are living in poverty. On a related topic, may I ask whether the Chancellor would listen to requests for additional funding for child protection in Rotherham and around the country? (905062)
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and we will look at all places and all situations. I reiterate that this Government are committed to helping all families that are having difficult times. Child poverty has come down and, of course, work is the best route to get families out of poverty. I am happy to discuss with her the specific issue of child poverty in her constituency
Autumn statement 2013 confirmed that fuel duty will be frozen for the remainder of this Parliament. As a result of this Government’s very clear actions, average pump prices are currently 16 pence per litre lower than they would have been if the Government had implemented the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator, and will be nearly 20 pence per litre lower by the end of this Parliament.
May I congratulate my fellow Essex MP on her well-deserved promotion to the Treasury? Will she update the House on the use of the tax system to reduce the instability for motorists and outline the help that has been provided for them during what was the most horrendous recession caused by the Labour party?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his warm and generous remarks. He knows that the Government are committed to supporting motorists. We are the Government who abolished the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator, cut fuel duty by 1 pence per litre and scrapped the four increases that had been planned over the Parliament. By the end of this Parliament, fuel duty will have been frozen for nearly four and a half years—the longest duty freeze in over 20 years—which I know that my right hon. Friend and, of course, the good people of Chelmsford will warmly welcome.
There are a record number of people in work, and 1.8 million jobs have been created since 2010. We are also seeing the largest fall in youth unemployment on record. But too many people remain without a job, which is why we are determined to achieve full employment by helping businesses to take on new staff, and reforming welfare so that it always pays to work.
Unemployment continues to fall across Leeds, and in my constituency it has fallen by 39% to 1.8%. That is providing families with the stability and security of a regular pay packet. But is my right hon. Friend aware that of the 2 million jobs created, more than three quarters have been in full-time employment, and does not that show that the long-term economic plan of this Government is building a healthier and stronger economy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember visiting with him Hainsworth & Sons, a textile company in his constituency, which is now exporting to China. In his constituency, as in others, we have seen a dramatic fall in unemployment. Unemployment is down 31% in the last year; youth unemployment has fallen too. Many of those jobs are in full-time employment, as he says, but of course we are also supporting those in self-employment.
Of all those jobs created, many are part time, and part-time jobs for people who are looking for full-time employment—over a quarter of a million people are involved there. What is the Chancellor doing to increase the opportunities for full-time employment in this country?
What the hon. Gentleman says is not a clear statement of the facts, because actually, full-time employment accounts for three quarters of all the new jobs created since 2010. Of course there are those who want part-time employment, but for those in part-time employment who want full-time employment, the answer is to continue to support the economy, to do the difficult things necessary on the public finances to inspire confidence in that economy, and not to have disastrous things like a jobs tax rise, which would make it more difficult for those people to get full-time work.
Key to a long-term employment plan is the wonderful apprenticeship scheme. The new scheme was launched by the Business Secretary in Leeds. We have seen the creation of 2,000 apprenticeships since 2010. Will my right hon. Friend also welcome the fact that now, finally, Leeds city council is talking about a university technical college? Considering that there is a spare Leeds city council site, does he not think it is time that Leeds city council got on and built one?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The university technical colleges have been a real boost to technical education in our education system, and I know that there are ambitious proposals in Leeds. Indeed, I think, from memory, that one has just been given the go-ahead in Leeds. But I would also say that the apprenticeship scheme has been very successful. Working with myself and the Business Secretary, more than 2 million apprenticeships have been provided. We want to see more of those provided, so that young people have the skills to take the opportunities that the economy is now providing them.
Does the Chancellor regret that under his watch the number of young people staying on jobseeker’s allowance for more than 12 months has risen by more than 46%? Is it not now time for Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee to ensure that young people are not left behind?
Interestingly, a lot of Labour MPs have regularly asked about long-term youth unemployment during Treasury questions over the past couple of years. I bring that up because the hon. Lady asks about this, but long-term youth unemployment is now lower than it was when this Government came to office. We heard a lot of complaints about long-term youth unemployment over the past two years, so let us have some Labour Members congratulating the Government now.
Taxes on Households
The Government have done a vast amount to reduce the tax burden on working people. By the end of this Parliament, without the Government’s changes to the tax system, 3.2 million low-paid individuals whom we have lifted out of income tax would still have been paying income tax, it would have cost the typical motorist £10 more to fill up their petrol tank following the rise that the previous Government planned would take place yesterday, and the council tax bill for a family in a band D property could have been up to £1,100 more. This is all part of our long-term plan to build a stronger economy in a fairer society.
Around 40,000 people in my constituency will benefit from the Government’s decision to raise the tax limit. That helps those on low and middle incomes to keep more of the money they earn in their pocket each month, which shows the Government’s good values in action. Will my right hon. Friend confirm how much more someone in my constituency on the minimum wage will save as a result of our actions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of lifting the income tax personal allowance, which was a Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment for working people in this country. A full-time worker on the minimum wage will pay three quarters less income tax than they would have done in 2010. A typical basic rate taxpayer will save £800 in cash terms in the next financial year.
If the Chief Secretary believes in reducing taxation on working families, will he explain why those on universal credit will be subject to a 76% marginal deduction rate on extra earnings? Why do the Government believe that wealthy people have to be incentivised by a tax cut, but the poorest people need to be incentivised by a huge tax rate?
The hon. Lady deliberately ignores the fact that many people faced marginal deduction rates of more than 100% under the previous Labour Government. It is precisely because we want every single person in this country to know that they will be better off in work than on benefits that we are introducing universal credit, and she should support it as strongly as I do.
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has shown that a 3p cut in fuel duty would generate 70,000 new jobs, stimulate GDP by 0.2% and help to reduce inflation. The Centre for Economics and Business Research says that a cut would be even more beneficial to the economy and would be self-financing. Do the Government accept that a cut in fuel duty would be self-financing and provide a boost to the economy?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that study, which I have discussed with the FairFuelUK campaign, although I was slightly discomforted when it said it thought that the only two politicians it had met who understood the issue were myself and Nigel Farage—that was probably a surprise to both of us. The Treasury has published its own analysis on fuel duty reductions, which shows the economic benefits that they can bring.
Given the importance of accurately calculating the tax yield from households and businesses, and that of ensuring that both pay their fair share of tax, will the Chief Secretary tell us when, following the letter from the head of the UK Statistics Authority, the Chancellor will correct the record and apologise for giving the House incorrect figures that inflated the success of his tax avoidance programme?
The hon. Lady should celebrate our tax avoidance programme because it ensures that people who avoided paying tax under the previous Labour Government now pay tax under this coalition Government. She should welcome the fact that the programme is bringing in £7 billion more than was the case under the previous Government, not criticise it.
Help for Businesses
The Government are actively supporting the export and investment aspirations of British businesses. To ensure that companies have access to world leading export finance, Budget 2014 announced that Export Finance’s direct lending facility will be doubled to £3 billion and the rate of interest cut by a third to the lowest level allowed by international agreements. UK Trade & Investment is on track to help 50,000 companies export by 2015, double the number supported in 2010, and to encourage investment, the Government have cut the main rate of corporation tax to 21% and will reduce it further to 20% in April 2015.
I have a successful small company in my constituency that sells skin care products across the world, and most recently, to China, but it would appear that the Chinese Government are insisting that online customers in China can purchase only up to $100-worth of product at any time unless they turn themselves into a registered business. Surely that must be against World Trade Organisation rules, so will my hon. Friend will look into it as a matter of urgency?
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for her constituents and businesses located in her constituency. She raises an important point and I will make sure that both our embassy in China and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are aware of her concerns. The Government recognise the importance of trade with China and we want to do everything that we can to bring down barriers to enable as much trade as possible.
During the past week, two reports have shown that export growth is down because of external factors such as slow growth in the eurozone, sanctions against Russia and the strength of the pound, and at the same time lending by banks to small businesses this year has fallen by £1,200 million, affecting their investment plans. Is there not a real danger that future growth will now be dependent on unsustainable consumer borrowing? What can the Government do, first to force banks to lend money to small businesses, and secondly to make known to small businesses the plethora of initiatives that have been taken to encourage exports?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the fact that there are external pressures here, but there are steps that the Government can take, and, as he touches upon, we have taken a number of measures to help with exports. Whether that is support for UK Trade & Investment or new financing facilities, the Government are determined to do everything to help those businesses to export to overseas markets.
21. Does my hon. Friend agree that the extension of the runway at Birmingham airport, allowing long-haul flights now to fly direct to China, is another example of how the Government’s long-term economic plan to build a stronger and healthier economy in the west midlands will allow business men to travel there and do better business with China? (905067)
The removal of the aggregates levy credit scheme in Northern Ireland has severely hit the construction industry. I was pleased to hear that the European Commission had ruled that the scheme was legal and will not be seeking back payments. What will the Minister do to reinstate the levy to help local businesses grow and create employment?
The Government are challenging the bank bonus cap provisions under EU capital requirements directive IV. We think that those rules will undermine the progress that we have made to make sure that bankers’ pay is aligned with long-term performance and that there are no rewards for failure or wrongdoing.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have instead introduced a permanent bank levy on bankers’ balance sheets, which, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, will raise £8 billion during the life of this Parliament, and up to £18 billion by 2018-19, so they are paying a fair share towards our economic recovery.
Growth in Average Earnings
We recognise that times have been tough for hard-working people. However, the Government have taken decisive action in getting more people into work than ever before—cutting taxes for hard-working families through increases in personal allowances, freezing council tax and fuel duty, cutting energy bills, and providing tax-free child care up to £2,000.
In July the Chancellor came to Newcastle to announce that the economy was back on track. Office for National Statistics figures show that the real value of average wages in the north-east has fallen by £1,811 per year since this Government came into power. Is that what he means by “on track”—falling wages for working people and tax cuts for millionaires?
The hon. Lady will know that our economy is recovering from the deepest debt-fuelled recession in living memory. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has made it clear that there have been very significant falls in real earnings as a direct but delayed response to the 2008 recession. In the light of this honest assessment, she will know that the only way to raise living standards in a sustainable way is to tackle the country’s economic problems head on.
20. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best indications of the rate of growth is the increase in jobs, and that with over 1.8 million more jobs now in the economy than over the past four years, more women in work than ever before, and youth unemployment falling dramatically, that all indicates that our long-term economic plan is working and that as regards the economic policies of the Opposition, the wheel may be turning but the hamster is dead? (905066)
According to the most recent Office for National Statistics figures, child poverty in lone parent families where the parent is working full-time has risen from 17% to 22%. What are the Government doing to help those families to beat the rising cost of living?
I re-emphasise the point that I made earlier: child poverty under this Government is down by 300,000. Inequality is being tackled very effectively by this Government through what we are doing to raise living standards and tackle the country’s economic problems head on.
Business Start-ups (Milton Keynes)
The latest data indicate that 2,200 new businesses were set up in Milton Keynes in the year to July 2014.
I am grateful for that answer. Does my hon. Friend agree that more new business start-ups are vital to secure our economic recovery? Is he aware that this Friday my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) and I are hosting a business start-up event to give budding entrepreneurs access to the support and advice they need to get their businesses going?
I entirely agree that business start-ups are very important. I certainly was aware of the event at the national rail centre in Milton Keynes between 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock on Friday afternoon. I also note that unemployment in my hon. Friend’s constituency has gone down by 42% since the last election, which suggests that start-ups are thriving in Milton Keynes.
Cost of Living
As I said earlier, the coalition Government have taken decisive action to support families on low incomes, particularly by increasing the personal allowance next year to £10,500—a key Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment. I also mention the hugely successful introduction today of universal free school meals for infant school pupils, which, as well as enhancing educational performance, is worth £400 per child in terms of the costs of paying for those meals.
I thank the Chief Secretary for his answer. Does he agree that the Liberal Democrats have been a driving force in this Government for helping people on low incomes through the increase in personal tax allowance, and that the implementation of the universal free school meals for infant schools this week is further evidence of the Liberal Democrats really helping hard-working people on low incomes?
It will come as no surprise to the House that I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend. She is absolutely right to say that certain measures would not have happened without the role played by the Liberal Democrats in this Government. The lifting of the income tax personal allowance and the introduction of free school meals for infant pupils are just two of many ways in which our party has contributed to this Government to ensure that we are helping and that this country has a stronger economy and a fairer society where everyone can get on in life. That must be the right objective.
I could not possibly comment. They have to make their own career choices. In terms of the hon. Gentleman’s own constituents, in the past four years the claimant count is down by 40.7%, which means that there are more job opportunities in his constituency than there have been for very many years.
Bank Lending to Businesses
Net bank lending to business in the UK fell sharply following the financial crisis. The Government have acted decisively to stimulate lending, introducing schemes such as funding for lending and the British business bank. Against that backdrop, the picture has now begun to improve and the most recent figures from the Bank of England show that gross lending to small businesses has increased steadily since 2012.
Those were not the figures released last week, which show that net lending to small businesses in Britain fell by £435 million between April and June. That followed a decline of £720 million in the first quarter. Two years on, has not the funding for lending scheme failed Britain’s small businesses?
No. The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The funding for lending scheme has undoubtedly made more credit available than would otherwise have been the case. As I have said, gross lending to businesses has improved and the Federation of Small Businesses has said that the outlook for small and medium-sized enterprises is now better than it has been before. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the peak-to-trough drop in GDP between 2008 and 2009 was 7.2%. That is the cause of the disastrous drop in the availability of bank funding to businesses in this country.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his announcement of what is going on in his constituency. It is fantastic news that so many new businesses are starting up. As we know, that is creating millions of new private sector jobs, and that, of course, is the way for our economy to recover.
19. I hate to contradict the Minister, but Ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills tell me that they do not think that banks are lending to small business. Could the Minister do even more—I know the Chancellor has done something on this—to encourage crowdfunding as a method of getting more money to start-ups countrywide? (905063)
The hon. Gentleman is quite right: more needs to be done. The problem is not solved. This Government are doing a great number of things to try to help facilitate not only bank lending, but crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending. We are putting crowdfunding possibilities into individual savings accounts, as the Chancellor announced at Budget time. We are also taking great steps to improve the availability of new challenger banks, to ensure that banks provide postcode-level lending data so that new challengers can look for new opportunities and to ensure that banks share credit histories via credit reference agencies. All those measures are being taken to try to improve the availability of funding to small businesses. There is certainly more to be done and I would be happy to hear any ideas the hon. Gentleman has.
This Government inherited plans to increase the employer’s national insurance contributions rate by 1%. We largely reversed the negative effect of that by raising the employer threshold by £21 a week above indexation. We have also introduced the employment allowance. From April 2015, we will abolish employer’s national insurance contributions for under 21-year-olds, helping to support jobs for almost 1.5 million young people currently in employment.
It cannot be said too often: higher national insurance is a tax on pay and a tax on jobs. My hon. Friend will therefore understand my delight when the Government introduced the £2,000 employment allowance—he referred to it in his answer—which will help new businesses in particular to create new jobs. May I tempt my hon. Friend to say what further measures the Government plan to take to reduce the tax burdens on businesses and so increase employment in this country?
As I mentioned earlier, we have the removal of national insurance contributions for under-21s next year. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the impact of higher employer’s national insurance contributions, and I have to say that one of the risks that the economy faces is a future Labour Government putting up employer’s national insurance contributions.
I refer my hon. Friend to the response I gave earlier.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking her well-earned place on the Front Bench. May I tell her that my constituents and, indeed, many businesses in Worcester have fed back how pleased they are that we have kept the fuel duty freeze in place and rejected calls from the Labour party to restore its fuel duty escalator? Will she remind the House what the cost would be to those people and businesses if we had gone along with the previous Government’s plans?
I thank my hon. Friend for his warm welcome and kind remarks. This Government scrapped the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator, which would have increased fuel duty by 1p per litre above inflation from 2011 to 2014. Were it not for this Government’s very clear actions on fuel duty since 2011, current pump prices would be 16p per litre higher and would be nearly 20p per litre higher by the end of this Parliament. I know that my hon. Friend’s constituents and businesses in Worcester will support the clear action that this Government have taken.
The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the economy. That is delivered by our long-term plan. I can tell the House that the plan will be further expanded in the autumn statement, which I will deliver on Wednesday 3 December.
I thank the Chancellor for that answer. This summer, the Labour party set out a summer spending plan of some £21 billion of extra spending a year. I suggest this further debt will make our constituents wonder whether it has actually learned anything from bankrupting this country under Blair and his successors. Has my right hon. Friend assessed the impact on the public finances of such a disastrous decision?
My hon. Friend is right, of course. The Treasury’s own independent analysis of the Labour party’s approach to public spending shows that it could borrow over £166 billion more in the next Parliament. Labour Members have started to contribute to that with a £21 billion shopping list this summer. Perhaps the shadow Chancellor can get up and explain how he is going to pay for it.
Let me start by welcoming the Exchequer Secretary to her new post on the Front Bench, and by saying to the Chancellor, “Don’t worry—I’m not going to press you on my ice bucket challenge to you today.”
Let me instead ask the Chancellor about another highly topical economic issue, particularly among his Back Benchers. Before the last election, he told the Centre for European Reform that he was a “pro-European”. This week, The Times is reporting that the new chapter in his biography says that the Chancellor has gone cold on Europe—an “unmistakable hardening”—and is now pondering exit. I suspect we may know the answer, but let me ask the Chancellor: what has changed?
First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for nominating me for the ice bucket challenge. I would rather make the extra donation to charity and pour the cold water over his economic policies. When it comes to reading biographies, we do not need a biography to know his life story: he was put in charge of the British economy, and he wrecked it.
On Europe, our position is the one that I think is shared by the majority of the British people, which is that we seek a renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of the European Union, and that we will then put that to the British people in a referendum. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not get up and commit the Labour party to letting the people have a say?
The Chancellor cannot even convince his own Back Benchers of his policy on Europe, let alone anybody else. Let me tell the House what the president of the CBI said last week. He said that the Government’s policy on Europe
“has already, and is increasingly, causing real concern for business regarding their future investment”.
Yet the Chancellor is flirting with exit. We know what has changed: Boris Johnson has said that he is returning to Westminster and that he is flirting with exit, and—surprise, surprise—the Chancellor is too. Let me ask the Chancellor this. I want reform in Europe but, like the CBI, I am determined to put the national economic interest first. Surely the Chancellor should put his leadership ambitions aside and put the national economic interest first too.
We put the national economic interest first by fixing the mess that the shadow Chancellor left the British economy in. I have been doing some research on what he has been up to over the summer. I read an article in the Express & Star called, “Out and about with Labour’s Ed Balls”, about when he went canvassing last week. It says:
“as we walk down Essex Drive to another house (there’s no-one in), a group of boys on their bikes look over”.
They say, “Oh look, it’s Gordon Brown.” Even they can spot more borrowing and more debt—it is Gordon Brown all over again.
T2. Some Members of the House predicted that the Government’s deficit reduction strategy would result in the number of jobs lost in the public sector far outweighing the number of jobs created in the private sector. Will my right hon. Friend tell us who was right and whether that prediction was accurate? (905079)
That prediction, like all the Opposition’s predictions, was completely wrong. For every job that has been lost in the public sector because of the necessary and difficult decisions that we have had to take to reduce the 11% budget deficit, more than five jobs have been created in the private sector. That is testimony not only to the strength of the Government’s economic plan, but to the ingenuity of British business in creating such opportunities.
T4. The Chief Secretary has been keen to trumpet free school meals for six, seven and eight-year-olds. However, this week in Hackney, many of the 47% of children who are living in poverty will turn up at school not having had a square meal for six weeks. They will be fed by the free breakfast clubs that are supported by head teachers and charities. Is it not time that the Government woke up to the reality of poverty? The parents of those children can get only low-paid, part-time work if they are lucky. Is it not time that the Government took action to tackle child poverty? (905082)
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the seriousness of these issues. However, as has been said in this question session, the statistics show that child poverty in this country has come down and is coming down under the coalition Government. It is precisely because of these issues that we are introducing the policy of universal free school meals. The evidence shows that it increases take-up among low-income families, who do not always take up free school meals, and ensures that children get a square meal at school each day. I hope that she will join me in welcoming that.
T3. The appalling congestion in Abingdon makes life miserable for families and commuters and inhibits local economic growth. With 600 new and needed houses planned on Dunmore road, will the Chancellor meet met to discuss why investing in a diamond junction on Lodge hill on the A34 is the answer not only to making that development sustainable, but to unlocking growth in the wider region? (905080)
Of course, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss improvements on the A34. We are making an enormous number of improvements to the UK road system and spending more on transport and road improvement than the previous Government. We are also investing in science, and I remember making a useful visit with my hon. Friend to her constituency to see the results of the money that we have contributed to Begbroke science park. I will certainly have a meeting with her about the A34.
T6. We know from survey evidence that more than half of the licensees who are tied to large pub companies earn less than £10,000 a year. Does the Chancellor support the save the pub group’s call for a market rent-only option to ensure that tied licensees can earn a fair living and play their part in contributing to the local and national economy? (905084)
T5. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the astonishing claim by the Scottish Government that they would default on their share of the UK’s debt if they did not achieve a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom if—heaven forbid—independence was to happen? (905083)
The Scottish Government’s plan to renege on Scotland’s share of the debt in the event of independence is simply not credible because of the catastrophic effect it would have on the people of Scotland. Mortgage rates would go up, credit cards and bills would go up, and the Scottish Government would have to resort to the bond market’s equivalent of Wonga to raise money to pay for public services in Scotland. To default on the debt would be to punish every Scot for Alex Salmond’s failure to think through his currency plan B properly.
T8. Since the Government updated the law in April, thousands of construction workers such as my constituent, Ron Boyle, are facing a new form of exploitation. Forced to register with sham umbrella payroll companies, they lose hundreds of pounds a month in bogus fees, and pay national insurance contributions that ought to be the responsibility of their employers. Will the Minister assure me that that loophole will be closed quickly, so that workers such as Mr Boyle are not continually conned out of a fair wage? (905086)
I am grateful for that question, and we all sympathise with some of the difficulties that people have faced. It is fair to say that this Government are closing the loopholes in that area, dealing with intermediaries, and reforming the construction industry scheme to ensure that people who are employed have the full employment rights that they deserve.
T7. Is the Chancellor aware that unemployment in my constituency has fallen by nearly 700 since July last year, thus giving new hope to many families? Will he tell the House how the UK’s job creation record compares with other G20 countries? (905085)
The answer is that it compares very well. There has been a much faster rate of job creation in the United Kingdom than in the rest of Europe, for example, which I suggest is because we have instilled confidence in our ability to pay our way in the world through our difficult but necessary deficit reduction plan. We have helped businesses to employ extra people through the employment allowance and other tax changes, and we have created a more entrepreneurial economy, so that people who were out of work when this Government came to office got a chance of being in work, with all the security and opportunity that brings.
May I press the Chancellor on the deficit? The central objective of his plan when he launched it was to eradicate the deficit in this Parliament, but he now estimates that he will only halve it. Why has the plan fallen so far short of that central objective?
This has been the subject of much discussion across the Dispatch Box, and I have pointed out that while this Government have been in office we have had the near collapse of the eurozone economy on our doorstep—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor chuckles. Perhaps he should chuckle at the fact that the British economy is performing more strongly than any other major advanced economy in the world. He predicted that the deficit would go up, but it has come down; he predicted that millions of people would be unemployed, yet millions of jobs have been created. This summer, Labour Members set out £21 billion of more spending commitments, so the deficit would go up if they ever got the chance of office again.
I thank my right hon. Friend for reminding the House that the autumn statement will be on 3 December. May I urge him to ensure that there will be investment in our roads and railways in the south-west, so that we have trains that get into Plymouth before 9 o’clock in the morning, and more three-hour train journeys to and from London?
The autumn statement will be an opportunity to set out further improvements to infrastructure in the south-west, and the services, roads and railways that support Plymouth. My hon. Friend has been a doughty champion for that city and delivered huge investment to it, which was never forthcoming before. I assure him that we are looking at specific transport improvements to connect better the whole of the south-west with the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Government have made available funding to pay for the implementation of free school meals for infants and to enable additional capital investment in kitchens and the like in schools. The reports from around the country are that implementation is going successfully and that this policy will benefit thousands of children and their families.
I do share my hon. Friend’s concerns. As he knows, a currency union is not going to happen because it would expose the rest of the UK to economic risks that it could not control and leave Scotland unable to control its economy in the face of huge risks and uncertainty. An effective currency union needs a fiscal union and a political union, yet that is what the nationalist campaign wants to dissolve. The only way for Scotland to keep the pound as it is now is to remain part of the UK, and that is what I believe my fellow countrymen will vote for on 18 September.
Britain has an enormous trade deficit, especially with the EU, which is clear evidence of a misaligned exchange rate, and UK manufacturing is again suffering as the euro has depreciated relative to sterling. When is the Chancellor going to take the exchange rate seriously?
I follow the practice that previous holders of this job have followed over the past 20 years, which is not to comment on the exchange rate, but as I said in my response to the first question in this session, the weakness in the eurozone is an emerging risk to the UK economy and something to which we need to be alert.
Constituents of mine have been targeted by phone fraudsters calling them at home pretending to be from their bank, and several have had their bank accounts emptied, leaving them devastated. Will the Minister meet me and other hon. Members whose constituents might have been affected to discuss a way forward to ensure that banks have in place proper, robust security measures to prevent that from happening again?
Yes, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that issue. I have been made aware of such cases. Of course, banks try to ensure that they have robust processes in place, but if anything else can be done, we are happy to look at it.
We now know that the Chancellor has had a letter from the head of the UK Statistics Authority, so when will he correct the record and apologise for giving the House—obviously inadvertently—incorrect information which inflated the success of his tax avoidance programme?
The Government, including me, did inadvertently give the wrong information, but the explanation provided by the permanent secretary at the HMRC was accepted by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), as a fair explanation of what happened.
The Treasury’s infrastructure fund is paying for increased transport capacity in enterprise zones, through roads and rail services, unlocking large new housing developments. Is the Chief Secretary prepared to use the fund also to pay for the internet and communications infrastructure that those homes and businesses will desperately need?
The support we are offering to enterprise zones includes access to high-speed broadband, and my hon. Friend will also know that a significant part of our infrastructure plan is precisely to invest in and ensure that high-speed broadband is available in the vast majority of homes in this country. That is certainly something we will turn our minds to again in the autumn statement.
Child Sex Abuse (Rotherham)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on child sex abuse in the light of the Alexis Jay report in Rotherham.
Professor Alexis Jay’s report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013 is a terrible account of the appalling failures by Rotherham council, the police and other agencies to protect vulnerable children. What happened was a complete dereliction of duty. The report makes for shocking reading: 1,400 children—on a conservative estimate—were sexually exploited, raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities, abducted, beaten and intimidated. Like the rest of the House, I was appalled to read about these victims and the horrific experiences to which they were subjected. Many have also suffered the injustice of seeing their cries for help ignored and the perpetrators not yet brought to justice. There can be no excuse for that.
Last week, I spoke to the chief constable of South Yorkshire police to receive an update on the live investigations into child sexual exploitation in south Yorkshire and the force’s plans to ensure that victims and witnesses receive the highest levels of care and support. It would not be appropriate for me to discuss ongoing investigations in detail, but I can tell the House that there are currently a number of investigations covering several hundred victims in south Yorkshire. We must ensure that these perpetrators are brought to justice.
Rotherham is just the latest in a line of harrowing revelations about the sexual abuse of children. It is because of cases such as these that we are establishing an independent panel inquiry to look into the way state and non-state institutions have treated child sexual exploitation. Later this afternoon, I am meeting Professor Jay to discuss her report and make sure that her findings and all the lessons of Rotherham feed properly into the work of the panel inquiry. That inquiry will, of course, take time to investigate the historic failings of state and non-state institutions, but we will not delay in taking action now to protect children who are at risk of sexual exploitation. All local authorities, working with other public bodies such as the police and health and children’s services, have a responsibility to keep our children safe.
This report raises a number of issues that will need immediate action from Rotherham in particular. National Government must also, and will, assist. That is why I will chair meetings with other Ministers, including my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and for Communities and Local Government to look at what happened in Rotherham. We will consider the findings of Professor Jay’s report and consider what the state at every level should do to prevent this appalling situation from happening again. The meeting will build on the existing work of the Home Office-led national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people, which is bringing the full range of agencies working in this area together to better identify those at risk and create a victim-focused culture within the police, health and children’s services.
The issues raised in Professor Jay’s report are ones that have been running through the work of the national group. It has already taken a number of practical steps that will help to tackle failures such as those found by Professor Jay in Rotherham. For example, we have published new guidance for the police and Crown prosecutors on investigating and prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse, which moves the focus of investigations away from testing the credibility of victims on to the credibility of the allegation. We have given the police new powers to request information from hotels suspected of being used as locations for child sexual abuse, and powers to close premises where child sexual offences have been or are likely to be committed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) for his campaigning work in this area. We have provided training for private security workers to spot signs of child sexual exploitation. We have piloted pre-trial video cross-examination for vulnerable witnesses, ensuring that the process of giving evidence is less traumatic, and we published a new victims’ code in December last year. We will do more.
Professionals tell us, and Professor Jay’s report suggests, that co-located teams involving the police, children’s services, health services and others are a successful model for mitigating the risk of children slipping through the safeguarding net. We will therefore consider how best to support that work. Effective multi-agency safeguarding work will help to identify and support those at risk of sexual abuse and to bring offenders to justice.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government shares my concerns over the failings by Rotherham council that have been identified. This includes the inadequate scrutiny by councillors, institutionalised political correctness, the covering up of information and the failure to take action against gross misconduct. My right hon. Friend is minded to use his powers under the Local Government Act 1999 to commission an independent inspection of the council’s compliance with its best-value duty, with a particular focus on its corporate governance and service arrangements. In parallel, he is considering the implications of the report’s findings for all local authorities in England.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has already discussed these issues with the chief social worker and is looking at how better to support victims and children at risk. The Department of Education will consider the skills required by social workers and others to intervene effectively with those at risk of abuse and ensure that existing skills development work specifically addresses support for children who are at risk of sexual exploitation.
The Department of Health-led work into the mental health and well-being of children and young people will include a specific focus on the mental health and psychological well-being of victims of sexual violence and abuse, and consider the particular needs of those subject to exploitation.
I am clear that cultural concerns—both the fear of being seen as racist and the disdainful attitude to some of our most vulnerable children—must never stand in the way of child protection. We know that child sexual exploitation happens in all communities. There is no excuse for it in any of them and there is never any excuse for failing to bring the perpetrators to justice. The abuse of children is a particularly vile crime and one that the Government are determined to stop. We have made significant strides since 2010. We have important work under way but we will learn the lessons from Professor Jay’s report to ensure that we are doing all we can to safeguard children and to prosecute the people behind these disgusting crimes.
In Rotherham 1,400 children were groomed, raped and exploited; 1,400 lives were devastated by abuse. Criminals, rapists and traffickers have got away with it and may be harming other children now. The council, social services, the police—people supposed to protect our children—failed time and again to keep them safe. Alexis Jay’s report is damning. It is never an excuse to turn a blind eye to evidence of children being abused. It is never an excuse that vulnerable girls may have consented to their own abuse. It is never an excuse to use race and ethnicity or community relations as an excuse not to investigate and punish sex offenders. That is why the Government need to act.
First, what is being done to ensure that the victims get the support and help that they need now? Secondly, what is being done to catch and prosecute those who committed the dreadful crimes? The Home Secretary will know that there is considerable concern that South Yorkshire police do not have the capacity to pursue both historic investigations and current child protection. What is she doing to ensure that all forces have the resources they need and give child exploitation and protection the priority they deserve?
Thirdly, what is being done to investigate the failings in the police force at the time? The Jay report found:
“the attitude of the Police at that time seemed to be that they were all ‘undesirables’ and the young women were not worthy of police protection.”
The chief constable is right to agree to an independent investigation of South Yorkshire police, which we called for, but can the Home Secretary tell the House why that is not being supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission?
Fourthly, what is being done on accountability? The leader of the council has rightly stood down. The Labour party has started further disciplinary action against individual councillors, but is the Home Secretary concerned that the police and crime commissioner has not stood down and that there appears to be nothing in the legislation to hold him to account? Will she say what the Government can do to ensure that appropriate disciplinary action is taken against individuals involved? What is being done to find out what other institutions, including the Home Office, were informed?
Where is the overarching inquiry? It is two years since we called for it. It is two months since the Home Secretary agreed to it, but we still have no chair and no terms of reference, despite the seriousness of the issue. This is not just about Rotherham. If we look at Oxfordshire, Rochdale, the abuse by Savile ignored or covered up in the BBC and the health service, north Wales care homes, and allegations around Westminster and Whitehall, we see that this is about every town and city in the country. It is about every community. Time and again, it is the same problems: children not being listened to, victims treated as though they were responsible for the crimes committed against them, and institutions that just looked the other way.
This is not just historic; it is happening today. That is why we need the overarching inquiry urgently in place. But we also need to go further. Child protection has rightly been strengthened over many decades but it has not yet gone far enough. I agree with the Home Secretary that action is needed by different Government Departments and different councils, agencies and police forces across the country, but I also call on her to consider changing the law because we need mandatory reporting to underpin a culture change, so that no one ever feels that they can just turn a blind eye or walk away when children are at risk. That means that Parliament and Government cannot turn a blind eye, too, and that is why all of us need to act.
The shadow Home Secretary has raised a number of points. The last point was about mandatory reporting. I recognise that this is an issue that has been raised, and we are looking at it, but it is important in doing so that we properly look at the evidence of whether it is effective in protecting children. In some other countries, with mandatory reporting the number of reports goes up significantly, but many of those reports are not justified, and that diminishes the ability to deal with the serious reports and protect children. So it is a very complex issue. It is a serious question, and we need to look carefully at countries such as Australia and the United States, where there is mixed evidence of its effectiveness in improving the ability to deal with these issues.
The right hon. Lady asked about Home Office involvement. A report into child prostitution was funded by the Home Office and conducted by the university of Luton, which is now part of the university of Bedfordshire. As I understand it, the researchers were not employed by the Home Office, although the Home Office was providing funding. Since the connection first came up, the Home Office has been looking at the files to ascertain exactly what happened, and many Members will have heard the researcher herself being quoted on television and radio broadcasts in relation not only to her experience at Rotherham but the suggestion that she did inform the Home Office. The Home Office is looking into that internally. When that work has been completed, Richard Whittam and Peter Wanless—who have already been in the Home Office looking at the process of how what was called the Dickens dossier and the files on that were dealt with—will be looking at that process to make sure that it has been conducted absolutely properly.
The right hon. Lady asked about the overarching inquiry. As Members will be aware, I made an appointment for the chairmanship of the inquiry, but the noble Baroness Butler-Sloss felt that she should withdraw from that. I hope we will soon be in a position to announce the chairman of the inquiry, but we have been taking our time because of the concern expressed about ensuring that the individual who does the job is somebody whom people throughout the communities concerned can have confidence in. We have been deliberately taking our time to ensure that we get the right chairman, and in due course the right panel, to deal with this inquiry.
The right hon. Lady asked what was being done in terms of investigations. I indicated in my statement that I have spoken to the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police, which has a number of ongoing investigations. I have talked to him about resources and the impact on the force, and he is able to support the work currently being done. As he has announced, he will be bringing in another, independent force to look at these issues and whether further action needs to be taken as a result of what the police did over the period of time covered by the Jay report.
In relation to the question of the police and crime commissioner, I have to say this to the right hon. Lady. She made some points that were an attempt to raise political issues around the police and crime commissioner. [Interruption.] If hon. Members will just calm down, I will respond to the point the right hon. Lady made. The police and crime commissioner is an elected individual, accountable to the electorate in the ballot box. That was the point of setting up the police and crime commissioner —that they are accountable to the electorate in the ballot box—but I would also make this point to the right hon. Lady: the Labour party chose the Labour councillor who was responsible for children’s services in Rotherham, and who had stood down in 2010 following the failings there, to be their candidate for PCC. So I suggest that they think carefully before starting to raise that particular issue.
We have institutionalised racism, and we now appear to have problems arising from an institutionalised fear of accusations of racism, whether in education in Birmingham or in safeguarding in Rotherham and elsewhere. What can be done to ensure that effective action is taken to ensure that children are protected, regardless of the community in which wrong is found?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. We have to send a very clear message to everyone involved in the protection of children that there can be no excuse for failing to protect them or failing to bring perpetrators to justice. We need to send a clear message that it is completely and utterly unacceptable for children not to be protected as a result of a fear that stating particular communities were involved in a particular activity could lead to accusations of racism. We also need to deal with the cultural problem that lay behind what happened in Rotherham. Frankly, it was a culture that failed to believe young girls because of the background and the families that they came from. More than that, according to Professor Jay’s report, it was as though people felt that this was the sort of thing that happened to girls from those sorts of backgrounds. That is appalling and we must reject that view across the House and send that message loud and clear.
I am exceptionally angry on so many levels. I am angry that the people paid to take care of those children let them down so appallingly. I am angry that the abusers are still out on the streets. And I am most angry that at least 1,400 young people have not got the justice or the support that they deserve. Will the Home Secretary work with me to ensure that the necessary resources are in place so that they can get the resolution that they so desperately need?
Yes. I commend the hon. Lady for the careful and thoughtful way in which she has responded to this appalling report and these appalling revelations. We will certainly work with her. As I have said, I have already spoken to the chief constable of South Yorkshire police about the ongoing investigations there. Sadly, we must recognise that similar investigations are also taking place in other parts of the country. We are beginning to unveil the extent of the problem across the country, and in so doing we can now start to get to grips with it.
The scale of the revelations in Rotherham was truly shocking but, alas, came as little surprise to those of us who have been railing against institutionalised political correctness, as the Home Secretary put it, for so long. More Rotherhams will come to light, which is why the Government put in place the child sexual exploitation action plan in November 2011 to co-ordinate activities to intervene and prevent. Will she update the House on the progress of that co-ordinated action plan? In particular, will she tell us whether anyone is monitoring the plan to ensure that every local safeguarding children board in the country—well beyond Rotherham—has a fit-for-purpose action plan to intervene, prevent and prosecute in every part of the country?
The Secretary of State for Education has been looking into the local safeguarding board plans across the country, and it is true to say that they are of variable quality. One of the pieces of work that we will be discussing in the ministerial team—I know that my right hon. Friend is already considering it—is how we can raise the quality of those plans. This is not just about the quality of the plans, however; we need to ensure that something happens behind them. It is all very well putting words on a piece of paper, but it is essential that work is then done to put them into practice.
I welcome many of the things that the Home Secretary has said. Over a decade ago, I met one of the victims, Emma Jackson, and her parents. They were concerned about the inactivity of the investigation being carried out by South Yorkshire police into what I believed to be an horrendous crime. At that time, South Yorkshire police refused to meet me and the family together, although I did have meetings with them. I am not one who wants to direct the police and tell them what they should be doing on a day-to-day basis—that is not a matter for politicians—but I had deep concerns then, and they have remained with me ever since. South Yorkshire police have said this morning, six days after the announcement, that they are going to hold an independent inquiry into these historical cases. Will the Home Secretary support that inquiry and ensure that it is properly resourced?
I absolutely understand the frustration and anger that the right hon. Gentleman feels about the attitude that was taken by South Yorkshire police. I think that his view is shared across the Chamber. South Yorkshire police are bringing in another police force to conduct that independent investigation. They have been discussing it with Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to establish who it would be appropriate to bring in, and the Home Office is being sighted on that. We want to ensure that the inquiry is done properly, and that if further action needs to be taken as a result, it should be taken.
The Jay report confirmed that some girls who had been taken into care for their own protection actually received worse protection in care. The independent reviewing officer, whose job is to protect children in care, is an employee of the same local authority and therefore not independent. Will the Government consider backing my private Member’s Bill, which seeks to establish a remedy for children in care so that they can be protected from maltreatment in the care system?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point and, if I may, I will take it away and discuss it with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. It is bad enough when agencies such as the council and the police fail to take seriously the concerns of young people, but it is even more concerning when those young people are in the care of the local authority itself and have become the victims of these crimes as a result of dereliction of duty. I will take my hon. Friend’s point away.
The scale and brutality of the sexual exploitation revealed in the Jay report have shocked and shamed our whole town. Does the Home Secretary agree that those who knew about that terrible abuse but did not do their job by protecting those children or prosecuting the offenders must now be called to account? The Labour council leader has rightly resigned, and the Labour party is taking further tough steps today to get to the bottom of what has happened. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the council and the police must now do the same? She has rightly said that this is not just about Rotherham, so will she ensure that the shocking conclusions of the Jay report are used as the basis for her overarching inquiry, when she eventually launches it?
It is absolutely clear that there are serious questions to be asked of all those involved who failed to take the action that they should have. The right hon. Gentleman talks about individuals in the police force and others being brought to account. I believe that the current chief constable of South Yorkshire is appearing in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee this afternoon, and I am sure that questions will be asked about the processes that the police force is following, including the independent investigation, which could of course lead to action being taken against individuals. I decided last week that I needed to meet Professor Alexis Jay to talk to her about her report, precisely so that we can ensure that her findings can be taken into the work of the panel inquiry. The original focus was on historical allegations, but we need to ensure that action is taken now, alongside any work that the inquiry is doing.
Among the many shocking aspects of this case, one of the most shocking was to hear a victim of the abuse saying that she could still see her abusers walking free on the streets of Rotherham. In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the chief constable, did she make it clear how important it was that the investigations of these crimes should be undertaken actively, successfully and rapidly? In that context, we have to ask whether South Yorkshire police carry the capability and the confidence to undertake all those investigations in the given time frame to achieve the success that they should achieve. Did she make it clear in her discussions that it might be preferable for additional resources to be given to South Yorkshire police to enable them to undertake those investigations?
In my discussions with the chief constable, we discussed the investigations that are currently in hand in South Yorkshire, as well as the resource requirements involved. We also discussed the need to ensure that the work that the police are now doing with the council involved better cohesion to ensure that the victims are being properly supported. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that it is terrible enough to be subjected to these kinds of abuse, but that to see the abusers walking free and no one taking any action is absolutely appalling. I believe that South Yorkshire police are now working on investigations to ensure that the perpetrators can be brought to justice.
There is rare unanimity between the Front Benchers about the seriousness of this situation. As the Home Secretary says, the chief constable of South Yorkshire will be appearing before the Home Affairs Committee this afternoon. I have spoken this morning to Commissioner Wright, and he will be appearing before us next week. Last June, the Committee published a report on Rochdale and Rotherham, and child grooming nationally, making 130 recommendations. One was specifically about getting an Ofsted investigation by last December and a second was about collating good practice. Can the Home Secretary assure the House that that has now been done? Although it was the Committee that urged her to pause before she announced her panel and the name of her chairperson, the length of pause is slightly longer than we anticipated. We would hope that she has that name and panel in place as soon as possible. I know that she has been careful, and I appreciate that, but the time is right for us to have that name.
The right hon. Gentleman raised specific issues about the recommendations his Committee made when it looked into Rochdale and Rotherham. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education that Ofsted will be going in again to look at these issues, and that is important. Obviously, some of the findings that have been developed in previous reports of that sort have gone into the work the national group has been undertaking. It is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention.
The understandable focus on the gross dereliction of duty by Rotherham council and South Yorkshire police should not detract from the need to bring the full force of the law against the perpetrators of these wicked and organised crimes. Could my right hon. Friend give any more details about the criminal investigations that she said were under way?
I have to ask my hon. Friend for her forbearance because it is not possible for me really to talk about ongoing police investigations—I am sure she will recognise the difficulty involved. Suffice it to say that a number of investigations are being undertaken by South Yorkshire police, and obviously the clear intent is to bring the perpetrators to justice.
This shocking report should unite all of us in this House, all political parties and all communities to see what we can do to make sure these things never happen again. Just at this moment a little boy is sitting in a prison in Spain, a very long way away from his parents. Will the Home Secretary make it clear that the Crown Prosecution Service will be asked to rescind the legal document, because it is shocking that this is happening now? Whatever the original reasons, it should not be happening now, and this document should be rescinded and the family allowed to be together.
It is clear that the lives of 1,400 very vulnerable young people in Rotherham have been devastated, in large part by a wicked culture of political correctness, assiduously promoted over decades by the Labour party, as public officials denounced as racist people like their colleague—our colleague—Ann Cryer, who sought to tell the truth. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to be vigorous in her campaign to end this culture, so that in future people can speak the truth without fear of losing their jobs or, worse still, being sent on an Orwellian diversity course?
I have already made the point, as my hon. Friend has, that cultural concerns can never be an excuse for failing to bring the perpetrators of these appalling crimes to justice. I commend the work done by the former Member of this House Ann Cryer, who did stand up on a number of issues, often in the face of her own party, and raised issues of very real concern. But the message from the whole House is very clear today: cultural concerns cannot get in the way of dealing with the perpetrators of these appalling crimes.
As the Home Secretary will accept, I am very glad that my Front-Bench team has taken the steps it has on this matter, because the historical fact is that it is children and communities such as these that the Labour party was set up to protect. That is why it is important that we have taken the steps we have. I am afraid I do not accept that political correctness alone is responsible for those girls being abused. In the end, people at the top of the local state in Rotherham thought those girls were worthless and did not care enough to read the reports, to go to the seminars and to act. It is long past time that the Government looked at the employment arrangements for heads of social services, because all the way back to Victoria Climbié and the Laming report there has been a concern that terrible things happen to children and the most senior people paid to protect them do not seem to pay any price and, worse, go on to other senior jobs.
The hon. Lady has raised a number of issues of concern generally in relation to these matters. I absolutely agree with the first point she made, which I have alluded to in my statement and in my replies: what underlay this was a feeling that somehow it did not matter and that because of where these girls came from—in some cases it was boys, but in the overwhelming number of cases it was girls—nobody needed to do anything about it. That is absolutely appalling, and we must reject that culture and do everything we can to make sure it no longer exists.
Let me take my right hon. Friend back to the issue of the 2003 report presented to the Home Office, as she has direct responsibility for the Department. The shadow Home Secretary talked about people turning a blind eye, suppressing and ignoring the report. The allegations made yesterday and today on the BBC were very distressing, so could the Home Secretary please publish what she finds out about all that, without an overarching inquiry and without a freedom of information report? She needs to publish details of what happened in the Home Office in 2003 and who was responsible, and hold to account the officials, or indeed Ministers, who were responsible at the time.
I am certainly prepared to make sure that the results of the work that we do in the Home Office, which is then looked at by Richard Whittam and Peter Wanless, to ascertain what happened in the Home Office is made available to Members of this House. As I indicated, this was a Home Office-funded piece of work. The report that came to the Home Office did not include, at the second stage, Rotherham. That appears to be because of the actions taken within Rotherham in relation to the researcher. We are doing everything we can to get to the bottom of this and find out exactly what was known and by whom, and what actions were taken.
This is not the first time this House and this country have been horrified at the revelations about our absolute failure as a nation to protect our children. I commend the Home Secretary for putting her finger on what is central to this: the idea that there are certain sections of our society, and in particular their children, who are worthless, who are useless and for whom there should be no care whatsoever. This is a national, not exclusively a local, disgrace. I very much welcome her argument that this crosses all areas of government and is not the responsibility of one Department or indeed one local authority, but I hope there will be sufficient financial resources to ensure that those who have suffered so much in the past are actively helped to make lives for themselves in the future; that those who should be brought to account are brought to account; and, most important, that never again do this House and this country have to learn that such things are happening on our streets to our children.
The Home Secretary has given a good account of what the Government are proposing. She mentioned ministerial meetings. Will she take regard of what Margaret Oliver said on the “Today” programme, which is that she believed that this problem existed at the “very top”? Given the fact that criminal offences may be involved—including that of aiding and abetting, which has been engaged in by people at very senior levels—is it not appropriate for the Attorney-General to attend those ministerial meetings to give advice, because there will be some very deep inquiries about some apparently very important people?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Obviously, a number of investigations are taking place to identify whether action needs to be taken against individuals who were involved in these matters. As I bring Ministers together to look at these issues, I will ensure that, where necessary, we take the best legal advice.
The Home Secretary has already said that we are starting to unveil the extent of the problem of child abuse across the country, and it is right that other towns and cities take a look at their child protection. Will she assure the House today that she will get the overarching child abuse inquiry going soon—that is a strong feeling across the House—and underline her commitment to start to bring the perpetrators to justice right across the country, as well as in Rotherham? That is a really important message to send out to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
Yes, it is, and I expect to be able to progress the overarching inquiry within a relatively short time scale. We now have a different approach being taken by police forces across the country. For example, Thames Valley police, who have been conducting further investigations, have made a number of arrests today. They have already had the case in Oxford. There have been a number of arrests in Buckinghamshire and elsewhere, which shows that these abuses are ongoing across the country. The Government and this House are sending out a very clear message that perpetrators must be brought to justice and that the abuses should be investigated properly.
Ofsted has announced an early inspection of Rotherham’s safeguarding and child protection functions. Given that a series of external reports over a 15-year period have been conducted, what intervention will the Government consider to ensure that any ongoing issues identified by this Ofsted inspection will be robustly and swiftly addressed?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State for Education is looking very carefully at the matter. She has already met the chief social worker and others to discuss the lessons that need to be learned. We will of course look very carefully at any proposals that come out from the Ofsted review. I have also mentioned the action that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is minded to take to be able to go into Rotherham to ensure that it conducts its responsibilities properly.
Earlier this year, the Children’s Commissioner produced a report that said that it is difficult for children to tell about their experience of abuse. It is often in their difficult behaviour that problems are identified. What we find in many of our schools is that the focus solely on academic achievement means that many children with these problems are either pushed out of the school or not listened to. Will the Home Secretary and her ministerial colleagues take this opportunity to ensure that, alongside a perfectly proper focus on children’s education achievements, difficult behaviour by children in schools is properly looked into, that the trust that is needed for them to be able to talk about their experiences is developed and that children who are exhibiting difficult behaviours are not ignored?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. Very often, difficult behaviour by children masks these sorts of abuses that may be taking place, which can be in the form of this sort of sexual exploitation, abuse at home or domestic violence that is being seen within the home. Much work is being done in relation to the children’s mental health and the support that they need. Work is also being carried out to help professionals better identify the issues underlying the behaviour of the children, so that they do not simply look at the superficial issue of the behaviour that is being exhibited.
One of the useful steps taken in recent years to fight this terrible abuse is the setting up of the National Group on Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People, which, for the first time, brings together Departments across Whitehall, as well as other non-governmental bodies. We should add to the list of failures that have been identified by various Members across the House the failure of Departments to co-ordinate themselves properly at a national level. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what current work the group is doing that will lead to a better response in future?
May I thank and commend my right hon. Friend for the work that he did when he chaired the national group and for work that he did with internet service providers in relation to abusive images of children on the internet, which can fuel interest and action in these areas? My hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention will bring the national group together very soon, and it will consider the report of Alexis Jay to see whether it needs to do any further work to ensure proper co-ordination. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says: bringing together Departments to address these issues may sound simple, but it is crucial if we are to deal with these issues.
The Secretary of State is right that the perpetrators must be hunted down and brought to justice. Does she also agree that officials who failed to do their duty must not be allowed to get off scot-free? It does not matter whether we are talking about the police who failed to uphold the law and let rapists walk free, councillors who put community relations above the interests of vulnerable children or council officials who deliberately destroyed evidence to hide the trail of betrayal. Does she not agree that, far too often in the past, people have either been moved aside, promoted or given pay-offs and that only rubs salt into the wounds?
Following on from the question from the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), it seems to me that this report is highlighting institutional failure but the lack of local accountability of senior councillors who are meant to be exhibiting political leadership is true not just of Rotherham but of lots of major local authorities. Those officials are too far removed from the public they are meant to serve. No one asks the right questions, and it takes a major report to shine the torch under the covers to get to the dirt beneath. What can we do to change that culture in local government in which not enough questions are being asked at the right time of the people who are paid very large amounts of money through allowances or salaries supposedly to make the right decisions?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is considering the lessons that may need to be learned across the board for local authorities as a result of this report. Of course my hon. Friend makes a valid point. What matters is that those who are elected representatives ask the right questions and are prepared to pursue their concerns and not simply to allow them to be allayed in unsatisfactory ways. We all have a responsibility for encouraging those who are councillors or elected representatives—Members of Parliament as well—to ask the questions and to push, so that when we are concerned about failure to take action, we highlight that and make sure that something happens.
May I say to the Home Secretary that it is very easy to respond in the wrong way when one of these crises arises? I hope that we will learn from some of the rather speedy reactions to the case of Baby Peter some years ago. I feel very guilty about the revelations in Rotherham. I was Chair of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families—we had responsibilities across the board and not just in education—and early on in my chairmanship, we discovered in an inquiry into looked-after children that gangs up and down the country were systematically preying on young girls in care. We knew about that and we did not do enough about it. Members of this House—many of us—knew what was going on. I had a debate in Westminster Hall in January 2009 on child prostitution and the gangs up and down the country who were taking girls away and trafficking them across the country. A lot of us knew, but we did not work hard enough. Ann Cryer did. A group of us did something about runaway children and the fact that the police, social services and children’s services were not joined up enough.
Let me say one last thing. It is easy to blame particular services. I do not think political correctness was the only issue. Of course, it played a part, but when I went and visited police officers, I often heard that this was too difficult; the girls would not give evidence, and if police needed to track and to have sophisticated operations, it was too expensive. Please, let us hesitate and listen to people such as Professor Eileen Munro. Let us get the right answers, not the wrong ones.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about ensuring that we do not have a knee-jerk reaction and that anything that is put in place will genuinely deal with the problems that we have identified is valid. His other point about the coming together and working together of different services and agencies, and the fact that very often people slip between nets of different agencies, is also very valid. That is why the multi-agency safeguarding hubs are so important. All the evidence shows that if we bring agencies together, we get a much better result than if they just act independently.
Professor Jay’s report has shocked the nation and we have rightly heard many calls for prosecutions, but that relies on a criminal justice process that protects victims from the kind of intimidation and disbelief that seems to have been endemic in Rotherham. The Government’s pilot on pre-recorded evidence is a vital tool for protecting very vulnerable witnesses from being re-traumatised in the court process and for increasing the chances of prosecutions. Will the Home Secretary press for an urgent national roll-out of the provisions, as that will make a material difference to the policing and prosecution of this vile crime?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I commend her for the work she did following the revelations in Oxford to help us to change the legislation to strengthen the ability to deal with such issues. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims is waiting for the full evaluation of the pilot. We would want to be able to roll it out, but it is right that we should look to ensure that we do that in the right way. We need to learn the lessons from the pilot.
Many of the men who perpetrated these crimes did so not just for their perverse gratification but for the commercial benefits. We must recognise the pattern in so many cases, which is that the grooming of the most vulnerable leads to child sexual exploitation then commercial sexual exploitation. May I urge the Home Secretary and the whole House to examine the relationship between prostitution and the current law on it and child sexual exploitation, with a view to reducing demand for the sale of sexual services? That might lead to cultural change and allow these girls to be heard.
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about how this can lead to commercial exploitation and we should not lose sight of that fact. This case is part of a wider issue in that sense, and, of course, the report commissioned in 2001-02 considered child prostitution, so we must remember, as he says, that this is sometimes not just about personal gratification but about commercial exploitation.
Although nobody wants to say so, the reality is that the vast majority of men who have been involved in this have all come from one ethnic background—they are of Pakistani origin. Nobody is suggesting that anything more than a minority within that community have, frankly, a barbaric view towards women, but some clearly have. Does the Home Secretary accept that it is more than a coincidence that so many have come from this background, that we must be able to say so without fear of being branded a racist and that something needs to be done to change cultural attitudes among certain people in the community?
Obviously, that was the case as regards the people identified in the Rotherham case, but I will say to my hon. Friend and all Members that sexual exploitation of children takes place across all communities. We need to recognise that and not simply think that it is a problem for one particular community. When certain communities are involved, we should not allow cultural concerns to get in the way of protecting children and bringing perpetrators to justice.
Order. These are very important and solemn matters, fully worthy of the full-length Government statement that I had originally been advised that there would be yesterday or today. I am sensitive to the interests of the House and keen to accommodate colleagues, but some premium on brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike would now assist.
Although we urge on the Home Secretary the need to get the overarching review under way—the names and all that—we already have Professor Jay’s report. We can learn from the dreadful experience of Daniel Pelka in Coventry, of which the Home Secretary is aware, and we had a report on that. We are not short of reports or action plans for local safeguarding boards, but what we need is a clearer sense of responsibility. That was the lesson, as I understood it, from Coventry. Three major Departments are involved, which have been represented at this urgent question today, but what is lacking is a clear sense of responsibility. Once that is all brought together, what do we do about it? What action do we take? Do we intervene or do we not? That sense of responsibility must somehow be clearly established locally.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. We can have all the reports, and perhaps more, and all the action plans we want, but what matters is not whether we have something written on paper but what people are actually doing and, in particular, what people who have responsibility for the protection of children are doing in their day-to-day jobs. That is partly about the cultural issue of ensuring that people understand that this matters and that nobody should be written off.
Earlier, my right hon. Friend mentioned arrests made today—once again, by Thames Valley police—across Buckinghamshire. Does she agree that we can have much more confidence locally in our police than might be suggested by the situation in Rotherham? Since she is aware that trials have collapsed, will she agree that there is a real problem in that vulnerable witnesses sometimes face a succession of aggressive barristers? Will she take steps to ensure that that problem is addressed?
The whole question of vulnerable witnesses and how they can be supported to ensure that they can give the evidence that is essential to bring prosecutions has already been considered by the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. The national group chaired by the Minister for Crime Prevention is looking again at the issue.
Months ago, I wrote to the Home Secretary asking for the terms of reference of the overarching inquiry and, in particular, to ensure whether it would be capable of shining a spotlight on abuse wherever it had occurred, including in this place. Seven weeks later, I had a response that said that the terms of reference would be published when they were agreed. We have just heard that the protection of vulnerable witnesses has stalled and we know that the inquiry still has no chair. I still have absolutely no idea whether the inquiry will have a remit to consider this House or elsewhere. The Secretary of State says that the perpetrators will be brought to justice, but what will she say to those brave young people in Rotherham, Rochdale, Keighley, Oxfordshire and around the country whose perpetrators have not been brought to justice and who look at this House and see that, decades on, other people still have not got justice for the abuse they suffered?
I recognise that, and that is one reason we are setting up the overarching inquiry to consider the historic allegations, to learn the lessons and to ensure that we can ensure for the future that people are brought to justice. The hon. Lady said that the protection of witnesses has stalled, but it has not. Action has already been taken to support vulnerable witnesses and we are looking to see whether anything more needs to be done. This is an ongoing process, not something that happens once, is all done and that is it. We need constantly to look to see whether there is more we can do to ensure that victims feel able to come forward. I hope that by our shining a spotlight on all this victims will feel better able to come forward and that they will be believed, but we need to ensure that, when they do, they are.